By JOE McDONALD, BEIJING (AP):- China’s top economic official announced a healthy growth target for the nation Friday and its plans to become a more self-reliant technology leader amid tension with Washington and Europe over trade, Hong Kong and human rights.
The ruling Communist Party is aiming for economic growth of “over 6%” as it rebounds from the coronavirus, Premier Li Keqiang said in a speech to China’s ceremonial legislature. Some 3,000 delegates gathered for its annual two-week meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, under intense security and anti-virus controls.
The party is shifting from fighting the virus that emerged in central China in late 2019 back to its longer-term goals of becoming a global competitor in profitable technologies and promoting self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumer spending instead of trade and investment.
The NPC’s annual meeting usually focuses on domestic issues but increasingly is overshadowed by geopolitics as President Xi Jinping’s government pursues more assertive trade and strategic policies abroad, cracks down on dissent at home and faces criticism over its treatment of Hong Kong and ethnic minorities.
China became the only major country to grow last year, eking out a multi-decade low 2.3% expansion after shutting down most of its economy to fight the coronavirus. The world’s second-largest economy grew by 6.5% over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2020 while the United States, Europe and Japan struggled with renewed virus outbreaks.
Li vowed to “work faster to enhance our strategic scientific and technological capability” seen by communist leaders as a path to prosperity, strategic autonomy and global influence. Those plans are threatened by tension with Washington over technology and security that prompted then-President Donald Trump to slap sanctions on China’s fledgling telecom and other tech industries.
The party will “regard scientific and technological self-reliance as a strategic support for national development,” Li said.
Li promised to pursue “green development” following Xi’s pledge last year to ensure China’s carbon emissions peak by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. That will require sharp increases in clean and renewable energy in an economy that gets 60% of its power from coal and is the world’s biggest source of climate-changing industrial pollution.
“We will expedite the transition of China’s growth model to one of green development and promote both high-quality economic growth and high-standard environmental protection,” Li said. He promised to reduce carbon emissions and energy use per unit of economic output.
The premier said Beijing will “improve the relevant systems” in Hong Kong “to safeguard national security” but gave no details of possible changes in the territory, where the ruling party is tightening control following pro-democracy protests. The party used last year’s legislative session to impose a national security law on Hong Kong under which dozens of activists have been arrested.
“We will resolutely guard against and deter external forces’ interference in the affairs of Hong Kong,” the premier said.
A spokesman for the legislature, Zhang Yesui, said Thursday it will consider unspecified changes to support “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” fueling fears Beijing plans to shut opposition voices out of the city’s political process.
Speculation has focused on the possibility of reassigning votes in the 1,200-member committee that selects Hong Kong leader to cut out the small number of elected local district counselors.
The ruling party earlier announced it achieved its goal of doubling economic output from 2010 levels by last year, which required annual growth of 7%. Xi has talked about doubling output again by 2035, which would imply annual growth of about 5%, still among the highest for any major economy.
The ruling party’s desire for the prosperity produced by free-market competition clashes with its insistence on playing a dominant role in the economy and reducing dependence on other countries.
Li, the premier, said Beijing will promote “domestic circulation,” a reference to official pressure on industries to use more Chinese-supplied components and technology and rely less on inputs from the United States, Europe and Asian suppliers, even when that increases costs.
That emphasis on self-reliance has fueled fears the world might split into separate U.S., Chinese and other industrial spheres with incompatible technologies, less competition and higher costs.
The goal of “decoupling them from foreign technology and supply chains” is “more likely to harm productivity than help it” and will make hitting the 2035 target harder, said Mark Williams of Capital Economics in a report this week.
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